Today, we’re going to have a discussion; possibly even a debate. And I’d really love it if you could all share your opinions.
Yes, I’m talking about the big S-E-X. See, sex in YA has been an ongoing debate in the writing and publishing world for years. In fact, last week, Savannah’s agent Laura Bradford (@bradfordlit) started a twitterchat about #sexinya. And the difference in opinions was phenomenal. Parents don’t want to expose their kids to it, and yet teens are eager to learn more about it. Some writers think they need to be conscious of the sex they include in YA, and other writers think that any and all sex is suitable for a YA audience. Sex is readily available on TV, in movies, and even in music videos; so why is it that sex in fiction for young adults creates such a storm of debate?
I’m still not sure why this is. Perhaps it’s because kids are going through that phase where they begin transitioning into adults; that stage full of rebellion and hormones and peer pressure. Maybe people feel that kids are growing up too fast; they become too eager to follow what they see on TV. And maybe, people think that sex in fiction for Young Adults will only make them grow up faster.
Here’s what I think though; the reason why most kids read up is because they are being censored. They want to know more about the world of adults, so most kids skip past the YA section to read adult fiction. It is in the teenage years that young adults begin to explore their sexuality; and with it all over shows and movies featuring kids in high school being sexually active, it seems silly that sex in fiction would be deemed as inappropriate. It seems as if people are worried that sex will look like – and be portrayed as – physical pleasure. But I know that there is more to sex than just the physicality; and I knew that as a teen as well.
As a teen, I was reading both YA and adult books. I remember when, once, when I was around 13 or 14, I picked up a YA book. I can’t recall the name, but it had a sex scene very early on. What I can remember is what I was like: naive and curious, but completely inexperienced with boys or kisses or anything of that sort. And there I was, reading this incredibly graphic (for me, at the time) and awkward sex scene occurring in the back of a car; and I found myself so embarrassed and shocked that I closed the book and never opened it up again. If I had been a few years older, perhaps I wouldn’t have stopped reading. Or perhaps my reaction would’ve been the same. Who knows? But my point is that sex in YA isn’t going to make a hormonal teen run out and experience it first hand. Some might be absolutely fascinated; and others might decide that they don’t want that. Not every book is for every person. But everyone should have the opportunity to decide whether or not they want to read about something.
Often, sex in YA (Looking For Alaska is a great example) has awkward intimate scenes; and this is because sex for young adults is often awkward. In fact, speaking of Looking For Alaska, make sure you check out the Youtube video later in this post, where author John Green defends his reason for having sex in his YA novel.
Of course, I’m not the only one here who has an opinion on the whole sex in YA debate. Here’s what the other ladies had to say:
Julie: I’ve worked with teenagers for over twelve years, and I can tell you that many parents are very good at ignoring the obvious fact that their teenaged children are sexual beings. You’d be amazed. I think we all have to be honest, and acknowledge that sexuality is an issue in the lives of teenagers.
That said, I also think it’s important to recognize that each member of the YA audience is unique, and each book aimed at that audience is unique. It would be impossible to write a blanket set of rules about sex in YA. I believe that YA authors, even those writing fantasies, should tell the truth about the generation they are writing about. In some cases, that will mean dealing with sexual situations and sexual behavior, but not always. When the story involves sexual situations, I believe as authors, we should write about those situations with honesty. Just like I don’t think we should ignore the issue of sex, I don’t think it should be thrown into a story just to make the book more “buzz-worthy.”
When I was a teenager, I read the book Forever, by Judy Blume. I’m sure my mother didn’t know there was sex in it; she assumed it was another Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. I remember that once I got over the frank way sex was dealt with in the book, I appreciated that, for once, someone was writing for teenaged readers without talking down to us. I would have to say the book had no influence at all on decisions I made for myself about sex. But, to be totally honest, I never did tell my mother about the sex in the book.
Savannah: I’m not an expert on YA fiction, but having been an advanced reader at a young adult stage, here’s my two cents:
I do think there’s a lot that goes on in the lives of teenagers, whether their parents know about it or admit it or not. However, I also think that teenagers acting in ‘adult ways’ rarely have adult experience and wisdom to process their actions. Therefore, a sexual act has a different meaning to a teenager, versus an adult. To me the question isn’t ‘should there be sex in YA?’ but rather ‘through what lens should sex be looked at in YA?’
I think that readers of the YA age are curious about sexuality, and all the physical and emotional benefits and consequences that come with it. Sexuality is part of human nature, and whether parents like it or not their children will become sexually active in some form. Hiding or forbidding discussions or portrayals of sexual behavior is more harmful than helpful. And let’s face it… if a young adult wants to learn about this stuff, they’ll find a way, no matter what their parents do.
I say open up the forum for discussion by including sexuality in YA literature. Kids are already dealing with it; why not provide them with material they can empathize with and maybe even learn from? I think that would be immensely more helpful than trying to pretend that young adults are asexual beings.
Kat: I think I was eleven years old the first time I read about sex in anything but a scientific, this-is-how-babies-are-made context (my parents are doctors, okay? I never got The Talk. I got books instead and a Why Don’t You Read This, Dear?)
The book was in my middle school library, and to be honest, I’m surprised it was there. It wasn’t YA–it wasn’t even fiction–but it did talk about the horrific sexual abuse of a young child. And it didn’t pull any punches. The book was narrative nonfiction, so it read like a story, especially to an eleven year old who could hardly believe the things described in the book had happened to someone in real life.
I talk about this because that book honestly changed me. It opened up my world. I don’t think I’d be the same person I am today if I’d never read it–or even if I’d read it at a later age, when I was more worldly.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, I’m very much against blanket censoring of things intended for youth. Maybe another sixth grader would have been terribly scarred by this book. I don’t know. But for this sixth grader, that book came at just the right time. And if my middle school library had refused to carry it because it dealt with sex (or sexual abuse), I would have missed out on something life-changing.
Sex is sex. Within a book, it’s only a topic. It can be approached a million different ways. It can be received a million different ways. Trying to cut it out of YA books completely, in my opinion, would be a mistake–not to mention terribly unrealistic.
Biljana: I was also one of those people that would read up. I learned about sex in school in grade 5 (during health class, not during recess) and I was reading books that had sex in them by grade 6. I haven’t turned into a sex-crazed maniac or some kind of whore. Like Julie, it didn’t influence any of my decisions, and although I was embarrassed at first to read some sections, I never approved of censorship.
There are, of course, boundaries, and sometimes there’s a fine line between details that make it emotionally relevant and details that make it smut. I’m not saying give your kids 40 Days of Sodom to read, or something, but don’t think that just because your teen doesn’t talk about sex to you, they’re not thinking about it.
Furthermore, wouldn’t it be better for them to read about sex in YA books, where the characters are in the same boat as they are, than in a chick-lit novel where sex sometimes has no strings attached? Wouldn’t you rather have your teen read not only about the pleasure of sex, but also some of the repercussions it can have?
Those kinds of conflicts have a better place with characters that are just exploring their sexuality, than with characters in their twenties or thirties. They’re perfect for YA. You’re not going to find any romance novels where the hero and heroine finally have sex and whoops! Turns out it wasn’t the fantasy they expected. You can screw someone over by censoring them just as easily as you think you can by not. If you get a virgin to read only about how fabulous and awe-inspiring and dazzling sex is, because all they can get their hands on is an adult book where sex isn’t a major issue anymore, they’re going to be terribly disappointed when they finally lose the V-Card.
Vahini: As a teenager, I can say that I absolutely hate being spoken down to or preached at. If your story requires sex, write it that way. I actually think that sex is a non-issue in terms of can it be there or not (of course it can), but is an issue writing wise in that unless it forwards story, or characterisation in some way it probably shouldn’t be there.
The reason why I think sex is a non-issue, and don’t think it should get lumped with drinking, drugs, smoking as it so often does: Those things are illegal, sex isn’t (well, at least it isn’t if you’re writing upper YA). So it fascinates me that sex seems to be a more controversial topic than those other things. Obviously, considering that your target audience are still exploring their sexuality they’re not going to be very experienced, things are going to be awkward etc but I think it should be fine to include sex. It works fantastically in books like Looking for Alaska by John Green, Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan, and Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta.
Sarah: I had my first sex-ed class when I was 8 years old, so by the time I hit puberty, I was well-aware of all the technical stuff. However, reading books with sex in them exposed me to the emotional part of it. I was definitely curious about sex, and too embarrassed to ask anyone all the questions I had, so books definitely provided me with some information. I never once felt swayed by these books–reading about sex didn’t make me want to run to the nearest willing dude and lose my v-card.
I think adults tend to forget that teens are capable of making responsible decisions. I get the whole concerned parent thing, but censoring books isn’t going to stop teens from learning about (and having) sex. If anything, keeping information from them could possibly lead to irresponsible choices. Maybe it’s just me, but I feel as if the better-informed teens are, the better the odds are of them making safe choices. Having sex in YA opens up a dialogue. Let’s keep it open.
Jenn: It’s a funny reflection of American culture that sex in YA is such a huge issue, but people dying or being murdered in YA and MG books isn’t even something to think twice about. Anyway, I’ve always been pretty oblivious. Even though I started reading adult books at the end of grade school and kept on through middle school, I missed all of the innuendo. Of course, when it was blatant it was impossible to miss, but I always just skimmed to get back to the story. I wasn’t interested in reading about sex. Everyone reacts differently, so you can’t really say one way or another what effect certain scenes will have on individuals. I’m glad my parents didn’t censor what I read; I can’t think of a single thing I chose to read that I would say harmed me or adversely affected me. And of course, the one time my mom told me not to read something I went straight for it behind her back. That’s the other effect of censorship, if you try to keep things from people, especially teenagers and kids, they’re going to want to find out more.
If you’re going to write a realistic book about teenagers, you’re going to have to address sex in some way, even if it’s just awkward teenage curiosity. And I think it’s better to present a more realistic version than what you’d find in a romance novel. I liked how Tamora Pierce handled it in TERRIER where she established Beka had tried it and not been all that impressed. Leah Cypress also did a nice job in MISTWOOD where Rokan is superawkwardly trying to get a girl to come to his room, and failing. There’s no explicit sex scenes, but it is included as a fact of life.
So here are my questions to all of you: what is your stance on sex in YA (even if you yourself do not read or write it)? Do you think it is inappropriate? Are there certain types of sex that are suitable for teenagers to read? What is TOO graphic? Did you ever read any novels with sex in them while you were still young (and did your parents know)? What did you think of John Green’s argument from the video above?
I encourage you all to speak up; it’s always interesting to hear what people’s opinions are. All I’m going to ask is that you remember to respect one another’s opinions.
Vanessa is a Sales Assistant at Kate Walker & Co., a book and gift sales agency located in Toronto. She is also enrolled in a publishing program. Currently, Vanessa is working on a YA fantasy novel and a Children’s non-fiction series.